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Bad Advice for Romney on Mormon Issue

A common feature of the competitive political news industry is the high volume of overpromising headlines. A good example is today’s Politico feature, headlined “GOP to Mitt: Own your Mormonism.” The story, however, says no such thing.

What we have instead is an array of quotes indicating that Romney talking more about his Mormonism would be detrimental to his prospects or that it would be irrelevant. We never quite get to the argument about how to sell Romney’s religion to the public. Now that Romney seems finally to be his party’s nominee, writes Politico, “many Republicans think that the standoffish candidate actually needs to embrace his Mormonism publicly to open a window into his life.” But where are these promised “many Republicans”?

First we meet Penny Young Nance, an activist and former Rick Santorum supporter, who says the public might connect with Romney if they could see him worshiping. But she also says she “will support anyone against this president”–not exactly an example of a voter Romney has to work to win over. Brent Bozell offers a related piece of advice, saying Romney shouldn’t “distance” himself from his religion, but then says that the hostility to Romney in the primaries “was based more on cultural issues–social issues, not religious.” But that doesn’t explain why Romney’s Mormonism can be a plus.

It’s also unlikely to be true. A Romney adviser tells Politico that the campaign was surprised by the GOP primary exit polls showing voters would only vote for someone who shared their faith. Politico then provides us with a couple of those voters, who say they could not “morally vote” if the election is Romney against Obama.

The story offers some more dubious advice by suggesting that “If there was ever a time for Romney to publicly reveal his inner Mormon, this is it,” in part because “The Broadway musical ‘Book of Mormon’ remains a huge hit.” Romney should not, it must be said, base his campaign strategy on a musical comedy version of his religion written by the creators of “South Park.”

Later, Politico quotes a Mormon endorsing the idea to open up about Romney’s faith, but immediately undermines it: “It’s more than a religion–it’s a subculture, a way of life. Mormons socialize together, they do business together, and they raise families together [Avoiding it publicly] just perpetuates the view that he’s distant.” What would also perpetuate the view that he is distant would be the revelation that members of his religion tend to self-consciously isolate themselves.

Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, says evangelicals aren’t the problem, because they will vote for Romney against Obama “in spite of his Mormonism.” This is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the professed strategy. Land also notes, correctly, that the Romney campaign “would have more problems with Democrats demonizing the religion than with evangelicals,” as paraphrased by Politico. This is true, and David Axelrod has continued to press the Mormon issue despite promises he would put an end to the anti-Mormon aspect of the campaign. This is an explicit argument against Romney bringing up his Mormonism in the general election.

The final quote in the article encouraging Romney to talk about his Mormonism is from GOP strategist Steve Schmidt. But this advice is from, well, Steve Schmidt, so it’s hard to imagine the GOP doing anything with that advice but running from it as if it’s on fire.

It may well be that there is benefit in Romney’s Mormonism, but this article provides exactly one such quote that doesn’t immediately undermine the argument–and it’s from someone who didn’t support Romney but will in the general election because she’s a conservative activist.

The best argument I can think of in favor of opening up the Mormon issue is that Democrats, as indicated by Axelrod, will attempt to portray the religion in the most negative light possible. It’s not just Axelrod. Columnists at the New York Times have joined the anti-Mormon campaign almost as soon as they heard Axelrod’s starter pistol. Maureen Dowd joined the fray, but of greater concern was Charles Blow’s anti-Mormon insult on Twitter directed at the candidate himself. Blow later offered a tweet that was about as close to an apology that Mormons were going to get out of him, and he did not lose his perch at the Times–a signal that unlike other prejudices, anti-Mormon bigotry is not a firing offense and will be tolerated at the New York Times. (It will also be tolerated, perhaps unsurprisingly, by MSNBC.)

The best antidote to this may be the familiarity with voters that all presidential candidates attain in the age of long campaigns, 24-hour news networks, and ubiquitous social media. Or it may be for the Mormon community to do its best to counter the Democrats’ campaign against the religion. But now faced with trying to win Democratic votes against an incumbent Democratic president, it may still be perilous for Romney to raise the issue himself.